You might call Louisiana Best Seafood a seafood shack in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, but some of the local kids have a different term for it. “Welcome to the hood,” say some kids out front. “How you like your hood fish?” The term “hood fish” is, apparently, in some urban circles, as common as “crab shack” or “seafood shack” is in the Northeast.
Call it what you like, but Louisiana Best Seafood is pure Southern California -- Asian proprietors serving Southern-style fried seafood to a predominantly African American neighborhood. And they make possibly the best fried fish in all of the Los Angeles area: fresh fillets battered neither too thinly nor overwhelmingly. The crisp cornmeal batter pulls back a few millimeters from the fish and shatters into gorgeously crunchy shards. The batter seal is so perfect and the fish so moist, that after your first bite, you sometimes can just tilt back and drink a shot’s worth of fried fish nectar, right out of the batter shell.
The restaurant is covered, inside and out, with an enormous bright blue mural, depicting all sorts of happy sea creatures, smiling and frolicking with one another and all presumably really excited to be fried and eaten.
People are standing around outside the restaurant, waiting for their food, or eating it straight out of the Styrofoam containers -- chatting with strangers, chatting on their cellphones, calling out to friends passing by in cars and on bikes.
Inside, there’s a fish counter, topped by a plexiglass barrier. Hanging over the fish counter are an ancient-looking Chinese iron bell and some toy fish. A large sign announces, “You Buy, We Cook Free.” Another sign announces that the place accepts EBT, or food stamps. Inside the counter, a refrigerated case, there’s a wide variety of seafood: red snapper, catfish, buffalo fish, scallops, oysters. Also in the case are plastic-wrapped slices of sock-it-to-me cake (like coffeecake, with veins of crumbly brown sugar) from a local bakery, and neat rows of Capri Suns.
Scent of the sea
Admire the heaps of fresh fish on piles of shaved ice. It smells like a sushi restaurant, clean and slightly oceanic. The owners have chosen the path of exactingly fresh seafood, and frying is for intensifying and purifying its taste. There are a number of combos. However, if you ask for a modification to an official combo, you will be gruffly denied. You may have fish with shrimp, or scallops with oysters, but you definitely may not have fish with oysters. Choose your combo, sit down in one of the assorted lawn chairs that face the counter, admire the mural and the ancient arcade games, and wait for your order.
When it comes, it’ll be neatly packaged in a Styrofoam container. The standard combo involves fries, a little coleslaw and some combination of fried seafood items of your choice. The container is always left slightly ajar, to make sure the fried goods don’t steam in their own juices and turn soggy. Take it outside, plop the container on the counter that runs around the exterior of the restaurant, and dig in.
Even in a place as inexpensive as this, in a setting as informal as this, there’s a dedication to the craft of seafood frying. Various batters are subtly attuned to the types of seafood they’ll be covering. All are studded with red pepper flakes, bits of black pepper and spice, but the one for oysters is extra spicy and thick. It goes excellently with the moist briney-ness of good oysters. Catfish comes in your classic cornmeal batter, nice and granular, fried to a golden brown. Shrimp batter is fried to a paler yellow, and is slightly sweeter, to match the sweetness of the shrimp.
If you’re up for the challenge, the best experience here is fried sand dabs, which come as whole, hand-sized fish torsos, with the bone still in. A slight tug peels long sheets of fish right off the bone. Frying with the bone in makes the eating process a little more involved, but it deepens the flavor, and the fish are delicate and sweet. Fried extra-crispy, the batter is almost flaky, which complements those juicy sand dabs.
A lot of expats from the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest complain about the lack of traditional, American-style seafood shacks. They probably have a particular vision in their heads: weathered shack, on a rocky coastline, with an order window and a few picnic tables and lots of simple, fresh seafood. Such a thing doesn’t exist here, not exactly. For one, Los Angeles-area beach-side property values are high.
Louisiana Best Seafood is no imitation of an East Coast seafood shack. It’s our own, locally evolved version, about a mile in from the ocean.